“After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, Come up here . . . At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven.” (Revelation 4:1, 2)
In the recent 2003 survey quoted in my first article concerning heaven, the Barna Research Group revealed that of those who believe in heaven, only forty-six percent described it as “a state of eternal existence in God’s presence” and only thirty percent said they believe it is “an actual place of rest and reward where souls go after death.” These numbers hardly evidence a firm understanding of the afterlife among Christians.
In our last article, we answered in the affirmative that there is life after death as we examined the words of Ecclesiastes 3. This passage taught us that all humans know that there is life after death. In this article, I intend to solidify our thoughts and our hope in the afterlife by explaining not only that there is life after death, but especially to describe the place we call heaven. We will see this by turning to Revelation 4 and asking the simple question, “What is heaven like?”
A Place of God’s Creation
The first thing we learn about heaven in Revelation 4 is that heaven is a place of God’s creation. In the breathtaking scene of Revelation 4, John sees “heaven” opened and he is invited to enter it. He simply assumes not only that it exists, but also that it is a place. He can assume this because of what is explicitly stated at the end of the chapter. He sees and hears what occurs around the throne in these words: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (v. 11). God created all things, including the realms in which all things exist. To use the language of the Nicene Creed, God is the “Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, meaning, the invisible realm as well as the visible realm.
The Place of God’s Presence
The second thing we learn about heaven is that it is the place of God’s presence. The text describes God’s throne (vv. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10) as being engulfed in “lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder” (v. 5), which is an Old Testament description of the presence of God (Exodus 19). The throne is also surrounded by the light of “seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God (v. 5). This is a metaphor of the fullness of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit with all His gifts and power are blazing before the throne.
Certainly, God is omnipresent, that is, everywhere at all times. To speak of heaven as the place of God’s presence is an accommodation for us. But more than a mere verbal accommodation, heaven is an actual accommodation in which God condescends to our creaturely level so that we can experience Him after death. If there is no place created called heaven, then we as creatures would not be able to experience God and have fellowship with Him after this life. The reason is that even after death, when we are taken into God’s presence, we will still be creatures with all the limitations thereof. Since we cannot relate to an immense, infinite God, we need a local place to enjoy Him forever. Passages, such as Psalm 16, speak of God’s right hand as His pleasure-filled presence for His people. Revelation 4 speaks of twenty-four elders and four living creatures being “around” this presence and the throne giving God glory (v. 4, 6).
The Place of God’s Rule
Third, heaven is the place of God’s rule. Although God is inexpressibly transcendent and glorious, John is given a glimpse of the heavenly King. We recognize here that John uses the literary convention of a simile (a comparison using “like” or “as”) to describe God. The One upon the throne is described with regal colors, having “the appearance of jasper and carnelian” (v. 3). The jasper stone can be many different colors such as red, green, blue, brown, yellow, or white. The sardius, or carnelian stone, is a beautiful red. There is also an emerald rainbow (v. 3), which is a crystal-like, transparent bright green. What does all this mean? There are not individual meanings for each stone and color, but what John is describing to us is that the One who sits upon the throne is so glorious that the only way to describe His glory is to compare it to the most precious and brilliant stones and colors. He is King.
Further, the King is surrounded by His court—the twenty-four thrones upon which sit the twenty-four elders, clothed in white with crowns on their heads (v. 4). God is described as a glorious King, as well, by the fact that His throne is at the very center of this heavenly scene. Everything revolves around Him for everything comes from Him! This vision reminds us of Psalm 97. From this central throne in heaven God issues His judgments in all the earth against the sin and wickedness of this world that we encounter in Revelation 6, the seven seals in Revelation 8–9, the seven trumpets, and in Revelation 16, the seven bowls.
But also notice that His glorious reign as King is also revealed in the rainbow surrounding His throne. He does punish the wicked. But at the same time He remembers His covenant that He made thousands of years ago to Noah in Genesis 9. He made a covenant with all living creatures not to judge the earth by a massive flood again. So it is for the sake of gathering His elect that He does not wipe out this world, as He is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3).
A Place of God’s Peace
The fourth thing we learn of heaven in this chapter is that it is a place of God’s peace. John continues using a simile by saying, “Before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal” (v. 6). This communicates that there is no more turmoil, no more antagonism, and no more enemies. In describing heaven as being “like crystal” John describes a smooth sea that has no waves. In the Old Testament the waves of the oceans symbolize the uproar of the nations (Cf. Psalm 46:3, and 93).
This is what this creation will be like when it is renewed in chapter 21: “And there was no more sea” (21:1). The peace that passes all understanding is there and is freely given to all the redeemed.
The Place of Worship
Finally, John’s vision teaches us that heaven is the place where God’s people worship. When the door to heaven is opened, John immediately sees God. Yet, notice what he says about God, “Behold…One sitting upon the throne” (v. 2). God is ineffable, that is, He is indescribable, inexpressible, unutterable, and unspeakable. No man can see God and live; no man can see God for He is Spirit; therefore Christ reveals to John a vision of God. And even in this vision God cannot be described.
All John can say is “One sitting on the throne.” This reveals our God’s utter transcendence. He is so different from us that He is as far from us as highest star in the sky at night. God’s transcendence is like this: George W. Bush is President of the United States. He calls us “fellow citizens” or “my fellow Americans,” but because he is President—living where we have never been, surrounded by secret service agents—he transcends our common American citizenship.
Various groups surround this majestic King in Revelation 4: the elders and the four creatures. What does it mean that the twenty-four “elders” worship Him? This is the church in heaven. This is what we call the glorified church, the church triumphant, or the invisible church. They have overcome, they are ruling now, they are completely glorified and without sin, they are sitting as royalty. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, as Paul says.
What does it mean that the four living creatures worship Him? In Ezekiel 10:20 we are told that these four living creatures are the cherubim, which guard the holy things of God, such as the Tree of Life in Genesis 3:24 and the ark of the covenant in Exodus 25:20. There are four of them because they represent the animate creation of the earth. Just as there are four winds and four corners of the earth, there are four living creatures in this heavenly vision telling us that all creation stands before God’s throne worshipping Him.
What John teaches us in Revelation 4 is more than just a nebulous, generic “afterlife.” Instead it communicates to us a firm understanding of heaven. While all humanity knows by nature that there is life after death, it is by the special revelation of Revelation 4 that our wayward thoughts about it are corrected. Therefore we are comforted in this life with a certain knowledge of its existence and given a brief glimpse into what it is so that we may hope for it even more.
Rev. Daniel Hyde is the Pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.